6 Then she started to return with her daughters-in-law from the country of Moab, for she had heard in the country of Moab that the Lord had considered his people and given them food. 7 So she set out from the place where she had been living, she and her two daughters-in-law, and they went on their way to go back to the land of Judah. 8 But Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, “Go back each of you to your mother’s house. May the Lord deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me. 9 The Lord grant that you may find security, each of you in the house of your husband.” Then she kissed them, and they wept aloud. 10 They said to her, “No, we will return with you to your people.” 11 But Naomi said, “Turn back, my daughters, why will you go with me? Do I still have sons in my womb that they may become your husbands? 12 Turn back, my daughters, go your way, for I am too old to have a husband. Even if I thought there was hope for me, even if I should have a husband tonight and bear sons, 13 would you then wait until they were grown? Would you then refrain from marrying? No, my daughters, it has been far more bitter for me than for you, because the hand of the Lord has turned against me.” 14 Then they wept aloud again. Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth clung to her.
15 So she said, “See, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law.” 16 But Ruth said,
“Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you! Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. 17 Where you die, I will die— there will I be buried. May the Lord do thus and so to me, and more as well,if even death parts me from you!” 18 When Naomi saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no more to her.19 So the two of them went on until they came to Bethlehem. When they came to Bethlehem, the whole town was stirred because of them; and the women said, “Is this Naomi?” 20 She said to them, “Call me no longer Naomi, call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt bitterly with me. 21 I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty; why call me Naomi when the Lord has dealt harshly with me, and the Almighty has brought calamity upon me?”
The story of Naomia and Ruth is familiar to many of us. Famine strikes Israel. Elimelech and his family travel South to Moab in search of food. Moab, however was not a friendly place. There was antipathy between the two peoples that went back hundreds of years. The Moabites (descendants of Esau) felt cheated in the original land division and expressed their displeasure by blocking the Jews path to the promised land during the Exodus. By tradition, their refusal cost the Israelites forty years of wandering in the wilderness. A Jew had to be pretty hungry to emigrate to Moab. This was a move driven by desperation not desire. Starting a new life in an unfamiliar and hostile land was no small task. And the times were about to get much harder. Elimelech dies. Then both of Naomi’s sons die. In the patriarchal society of the day, the deaths of these men left Naomi desolate and unprotected. (We get a flavor of her despair when we see the names of her sons—which translate to ‘sickness’ and ‘wasting’. While it is nearly inconceivable that any mother or father would give their newborns such names, they foreshadow Naomi’s grief and isolation.)
Naomi decides her best way forward is to return to the land of her birth and tells her daughter in laws to do the same. Staying with Naomi was a dead end for the young women. They, at least, had a shot at remarrying. Orpah tearfully departed but Ruth insisted on staying with Naomi delivering her famous words: “Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. 17 Where you die, I will die— there will I be buried.”
As this story unfolds, Ruth does find a husband. She does find security and she provides security for Naomi. And most improbable, this foreign born woman becomes part of the lineage of David and Jesus. These were unimaginable outcomes when, in Naomi’s words “the Almighty has dealt bitterly with me. 21 I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty.” There was almost no reason to think their life would be any different. In real life, more widows starved to death or lived in abject poverty than ever found new husbands and new families much less became part of the royal line.
We are faced with similar predicaments. Where do we go from here when Covid threatens us yet again and when wearing masks becomes a political rather than a medical question. Where do we go from here when live attendance at worship is 25 percent of pre covid? Where do we go from here when we are confronted by loss after loss in our community?
Where do we go from here? In real life, we don’t know. We live not knowing and it is exhausting. Even as we tend to ordinary life, celebrating births, sending children off to school, managing our jobs and our homes, there is an undertoad (to use a Pat Conroy’s image) of grief, sadness, anxiety and fatigue that swims underneath our every activity. I can only imagine it was far more difficult for Naomi and Ruth.
Faced with grief, anxiety and a dire future, Ruth answered the question: “Where do I go from here?” by choosing to go with Naomi. In Faith and Real Life, several people speculated that she might have nothing to return to. After all she had married out of her faith and out of her people. It is at least conceivable that she would not be welcomed home. But, whatever her motivation, Ruth’s words and choices have become an exemplar of devotion and faith. No matter how bleak life or the future is, Trust in the Lord. God is working his purposes out.
Ruth nor us, know where we are going or what the outcome will be, but I believe both Ruth and us have a direction, if not a destination. I believe Ruth made her choice on the basis of her new found faith. In her faith (and in ours), making decisions solely based upon her own self interest was not ok. Ruth made her decision on the basis of her understanding of God and covenant. For us, and for Ruth, the corporate good must also be considered. We are called to balance and discern what is best for us individually and also, the needs of the people around us. Making decisions in such a manner stands in sharp contrast to our increasingly ‘me first’ society.
Where are we going implies a destination but what is offered is a direction—way to decide. In fact if we think we know where we are going, we will rarely be correct. In fact the two aphorisms—”life is what happens when you are making other plans” or “If you want to make God laugh, make plans.” — apply here. Nothing wrong with making plans. They help, maybe even most of the time. But every plan we make is subject to a left turn. When Naomi and Emilech started their family, they could not have anticipated a famine that would force them to emigrate. Nor could they have predicted the sequence of deaths that would leave Naomi bereft. They certainly could not have even imagined the life Naomi was to have with Ruth.
It’s not about our ability to predict, it is about our willingness to step into the unknown future. It is about mindfulness of our individual selves and mindfulness of the needs of those around us. These are secular, behavioral descriptors of what I call faith. Increasingly we live in a world where self interest and individual rights frequently take priority over regard for the common good.
At a more personal level, every person in our FIRL group had spent significant time caring for someone else—often at significant costs. We believe that is not only our responsibility but more importantly, that is the way to life. Ruth lived out that faith and showed us the direction to our question.
Finally, God operates outside of human expectations. An outsider, an immigrant woman shows us the way. That too is a fundamental part of faith. When we seek to follow God’s ways, we defer to the greater good. Loving is always inconvenient and often risky. It does not always end well. In fact sometimes it feels like God has dealt with us harshly—that we too went away full and came back empty. Elimelech, Mahlon and Chilion did not live to see the end of this story. But they, as we, are part of a story that is greater than any of us.
When we do what we can each day, mindful of the people around us, there are possibilities beyond our imagination—from the most unlikely sources.
That is our faith and that is our hope. Let it be so.
Vernon Gramling is a Parrish Associate at DPC. He has been providing pastoral care and counseling for over 45 years. You can find more about Vernon, the Faith in Real Life gatherings and Blog at our staff page or FIRL.